The Willow Pattern
Above and beyond the bridge, the willow,
a pair of doves like tattooed swallows
contorting on a sailor’s breast, evidence that land
is near, inky and indelible, sign of safe return.
Or blurring into the back of my fist, proof
of the time when I could handle myself
and was damned for it: the china from Kiangsi
squeaking in the spicy dark, holding high and dry
the tea, its weight transfixing stars and spiders
to the uppermost tiers, though underwater
in the bilge, a massive reef of plates survived.
The columns tottered on the dockside,
and fell, as fall they did, with the cataractic roar
of a slaver’s chandelier I saw tipped overboard
an age ago in Saint Domingo. The cheer that flared
along the splintered quays was loud enough, I swear,
to wake the millions of Atlantic dead.
At night I heard them shoal against the bulkhead:
pale maroons and keening coolies, teagues
and tars and lascars, that legion of the underdog
whose nation is the sea. The want of opium
it was vouchsafed such visions –
our swaying tree of liberty, our mystic rose
that love nor war nor wisdom overthrows.
Now my soot-smeared clock beats out of time,
and the moon-lit fire sprouts secret flames
that play upon your dowry gift, this plate of chinaware.
Though English made, from English bone and earth,
its willow branches squirm across the porcelain
like the giant centipedes of Port-of-Spain,
the creeping junk reminds me of Shanghai,
the wall of smoke that screens me from your eyes
resolves into the wall that separates the lovers.
And yet cannot, for all is simultaneous here
where fear and flight occur at once, the details volatile
like lives, shifting place and shape and scale
to circumscribe the sphere: clouds, currencies,
liquid as the fortunes of the Company
that conjures opium from indigo, human flesh from sugar
the way the gods might change a man and wife to birds.
I know there is blackness and whiteness in snow,
for how otherwise could the winter sun
make the water run dark through Athenian gardens?
O the animal senses are fine, as far as they go,
but miss the point of the point in time
where flesh joins with wheat, wheat with gold,
meteors with eclipses, sandstorms with rainbows.
You people are better off studying the sky
than a goat’s turd, but don’t look for omens.
Imagine instead a Scythian’s blanket
unrolled in our agora, his astral trinkets
thawing into the soft blue felt: adornments
for the barbarian ear, winking coins, crystal
spear-tips. This shining diadem of pine cones
stolen from the Persian court was once,
like the sun, a boiling mass of many kinds of metal.
That’s the only kind of provenance worth pursuing.
Forget about stamps or papers, leave that to the men
who ask me if I think about my native land.
To whom I answer, ‘but of course I do!’
gazing upwards, pointing to the stars.